Occupying Ukraine will not be easy

It’s one thing to invade a country. Even decapitating a government can be relatively easy, even if Vladimir Poutine has so ...


It’s one thing to invade a country. Even decapitating a government can be relatively easy, even if

Vladimir Poutine

has so far failed in Ukraine. But it is quite another thing to pacify a country and to occupy it in the long term towards a favorable conclusion. The Soviet Union discovered it in Afghanistan after 1979 and the United States in Iraq after 2003 – the two biggest ground invasions of the last half-century.

What lessons can Mr. Putin, and the Western leaders who face him on the international stage, draw from history? Each invasion was followed by a long, bloody and complex conflict. Afghanistan was an obvious loss for the Soviets, and Iraq for the United States was something between a draw and an outrageous victory. The lessons of these cases should not delight the Kremlin today.

The Soviets’ successful initial move into Afghanistan might have provided a template for the first phase of the Russian move into Ukraine last month, but the Cold War original was far more successful. On December 27, 1979, Soviet special forces seized key buildings in Kabul while an airborne unit took the airport next to the capital as large armored columns crossed the border. A puppet government was quickly and almost bloodlessly installed in the capital.

In 2022, Russian special forces and paratroopers failed in their first “decapitation” moves on Kiev and its airport. Russian regular forces, making much slower and more costly progress towards Kiev than the Soviets towards Kabul, will find it heavily defended if they get there.

The 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq went very differently and secured the targeted capital according to plan. The coalition entered southern Iraq on March 20 and Baghdad fell 20 days later.

The Soviets were counting on “decapitation” in Kabul when they invaded Afghanistan with relatively small numbers: around 100,000 men. In 2003, by contrast, the US-led coalition moved methodically north through Iraq with 295,000 troops. Consistent with the heavier approach of US-led forces in Iraq in 2003, a long and heavy air campaign significantly softened local defenses, a step the Soviets had not demanded in 1979.

The quick and nimble Soviet movement worked in Afghanistan in part because there was strong support in Kabul and elsewhere for the Soviets, and the anti-Soviet Afghan government was relatively weak and new. In Iraq, by contrast, Saddam Hussein had been in power for almost a quarter of a century and had sworn to fight the Americans to the death.

For Mr. Putin in 2022, the lesson is that invading with a relatively light force is highly dependent on initial success. Its 190,000 troops for the invasion of Ukraine are 35% fewer than the US-led coalition used to take Baghdad in 2003, for a country 50% more populous and about a third larger. The initial phase seems to indicate that the Ukrainians are far more capable militarily than Iraq was in 2003 and that the Russian forces are far less capable than the coalition forces were then. Adjusted for all this, and given the lack of local allies in and near the capital, Mr Putin might find that he has significantly underfunded his project in Ukraine.

If he does eventually take and establish a firm grip on Kyiv and other key Ukrainian cities, Mr. Putin will find himself in an entirely different phase of the effort: occupation. The Soviet experience in Afghanistan in 1980-89 and the American experience in Iraq in 2003-11 give some idea of ​​the height of the order Mr. Putin chose.

In 1937, 44-year-old Mao Zedong, fighting the Japanese occupation of China, wrote that “the guerrillas must move among the people like a fish swims in the sea”. The most important point in any comparison of Mr. Putin’s possible future challenges with the cases we have chosen is the relative challenges and opportunities posed to Russians by the local population in Ukraine. Other relevant factors include terrain, the international community, the nature of physical neighbors and borders, physical proximity, weapons, and the presence or absence of strong local leadership. A comparison of secondary cities – Mosul, the “capital” of Sunni Iraq, and Kharkiv, the “capital” of Russian-speaking Ukraine – will also be enlightening.

The crucial factor in any insurgency is people. Although theorists disagree on whether cooptation or terror is the most effective approach, it is essential to obtain the cooperation of the population in one way or another. The shift in the 2007 “push” in Iraq from units patrolling from megabases to units embedded in neighborhoods “among the people” was a major factor in bringing the insurgency under control. Buoyed by various acts of heroism and sacrifice, large and small, the Ukrainian people seem unlikely to be co-opted by the Russian invaders anytime soon. No one can say whether they might be terrified into submission by Russian tactics mirroring those in Syria and the two Chechen wars. In Iraq, Saddam’s Sunni Arabs made up 15-20% of the population.

Terrain will also be an important factor, both in the current invasion phase and in any longer-term Russian pacification and occupation. The Afghan mountains provided vital refuge for anti-Soviet insurgents and serious tactical and logistical challenges for the occupiers. Iraq (except Kurdistan) and Ukraine are both flat and open. This would tend to work in Russia’s favor in Ukraine.

But another factor somewhat balances the odds, even – given the high-profile nature of the war in the age of social media – favors the Ukrainian side. The Ukrainian population is 69% urban, compared to 70% in Iraq. (The population of Afghanistan in the 1980s was about 75% rural.) Already, we see that Ukrainian cities can prove analogous to the Afghan mountains: treacherous terrain for invader and occupier.

Here, two examples from post-Soviet Russia are illuminating. In the two Chechen wars (1994-95 and 1999-2000) and in Syria from around 2013, the Russians won out of a desire to use their air superiority and artillery advantages to liquidate, with spectacular brutality, urban resistance and ultimately any remaining will. of the opponent. In these conflicts, Russia had an advantage that it had in Afghanistan but is unlikely to have in Ukraine: important allies in the country in the military balance.

Borders are another factor. An insurgency is more likely to succeed if it finds refuge in a neighboring state. From there, the insurgent can plan, rest, train, and resupply. The border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Durand Line, is 1,600 miles long. This huge and largely mountainous border with an insurgent-friendly state proved a significant challenge for the Soviets. The Iraqi insurgency had no advantageous ground, but Iraq’s borders with Iran and Syria provided shelter and supplies. Ukraine shares long borders with North Atlantic Treaty Organization members Romania and Poland, shorter borders with NATO states Slovakia and Hungary, and a long border with Moldova, formally neutral but with a Western tendency. If a long-term insurgency emerged, sanctuaries would likely emerge in some or all of these countries.

A Russian occupation force would have a significant advantage: proximity and logistics. The main road networks connect Russian and Ukrainian cities (the tourist route from Moscow to Kiev takes about 10 hours), both directly and via Belarus. This contrasts with the 6,000 mile supply line from the United States to Iraq, or the shorter but dangerous routes from the Soviet Union to Afghanistan. Russia would be able to supply an occupying force in Ukraine relatively easily via major highways. The Ukrainian resistance would have opportunities for interdiction, sabotage, and even cross-border attacks. Yet, by historical standards, a Russian occupation of Ukraine would be easily supported, logistically. This should be marked as a net advantage for the Russians.

Social networks—Twitter,

Facebook,

TikTok and other platforms – is an interesting contested environment. It has appeared in previous conflicts, including the failed Syrian revolution and the campaign against the Islamic State, but in this conflict the level of sophistication on both sides has been remarkable. Both attempted to create a narrative of victory, married for Ukrainians with a narrative of nationalist resistance.

The Ukrainian side seems remarkably well led so far. And leadership matters. President Volodymyr Zelensky rebuffed a Western offer to evacuate: “I need ammunition, not a round.” Ukraine, with its population of just 44 million, seems to be rife with leaders, from parliamentarians to grandmothers and soldiers from Snake Island. We don’t know how long Mr. Zelensky and others will live. But whether he survives or not, he has made himself a major asset by his side. A “puppet” regime has been an integral part of the Russian playbook over the past half-century, from Afghanistan to Chechnya and Syria, and it is currently hard to imagine it working in Ukraine.

The international community seems resolutely behind the Ukrainian cause. Understated but hugely significant, 11 UN Security Council states – from Albania and Norway to Brazil and Ghana – came together to vote against the Russian action. Russia received support in the form of abstentions from China, India and the United Arab Emirates. Is this the first cut of a de facto anti-Western alliance of Russia, China, some Gulf states, presumably Iran, and in some cases even India? In the short term, the financial power, with the exception of China, resides in the states of what remains of the liberal international order, and it is unclear to what extent the Russian economy will be hurt by exclusion, with the possible partial exception of the hydrocarbon sector, of this system.

An insurgency in Ukraine would pose a decisive challenge to any Russian occupying force. The question is whether Russia can escape this historical precedent, whether through ancient means – crushing terror against civilians – or modern means – the use of social media, or the creation of new alliances. Either way, the United States will want to start planning for a possible long insurgency like in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Mr. Bull is a former foreign editor of Prospect Magazine. His next book, “Babylon: A History of Iraq,” will be published in the fall of 2023. Mr. Ollivant, a retired U.S. Army officer, served as director of the National Security Council for Iraq under the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. He is a senior fellow at the New American and the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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